On 24-25 October, avant-garde festival Semibreve returned for its 10th edition.

To adhere to current Covid-19 regulations, Semibreve’s 2020 transmission relocated online, and in an effort to counter the isolation that many have been subjected to this year, the programme was live streamed for everyone who was unable to be physically present at the historic monastery situated on the outskirts of Braga, Portugal. As the threat of a second lockdown intensifies, and venues across the world remain closed, the virtual festival experience was Semibreve’s way of adjusting to the new norm.

This year the festival grappled with the theme ‘seclusion’, dissecting the process of running an online festival and more broadly questioning the impact the past year has had on artists and their output. Inside the captivating 17th century Monastery of São Martinho de Tibães, a series of open access roundtable discussions, workshops and site-specific audiovisual installations took place alongside commissioned performances and sound installations, traversing ambient, drone, industrial and experimental soundscapes.

Seven artists were asked to remotely craft a sound piece, drawing from their individual disciplines to assemble a body of work. Through her meditative solo piano piece titled In Charge of the Hour, Kara-Lis Cloverdale explored succession and reawakening, motivated by her interest in memory and the sonic afterlife. Additionally, during the two-day programme Gustavo Costa, Klara Lewis and more presented individually pre-recorded performances that were commissioned through the Semibreve artist residency programme and generated during their time at the monastery. One of the standout performances came from cellist and composer Oliver Coates, who demonstrated his ability to seamlessly blend classical and experimental compositions through electronic approaches to sound. In this extraordinarily visceral piece, the Thom Yorke and Mica Levi collaborator used improvisational techniques to liquify sounds.

Laurel Halo was one of three other artists that were invited to Braga to take part in the Semibreve artist in residence program. In recent years Halo’s output has shifted from the dancefloor to focus on solo and collaborative projects encompassing live compositions, installation works and film scores. On the morning of the 24th, Halo presented a stripped-back 20-minute commissioned performance that embodied her time at the monastery, layering melancholic synths with more traditional instrumental interludes, bound by the emphatic vocals of Norwegian artist Hanne Lippard. Although separated by a screen, Halo’s performance felt incredibly intimate, visually complemented by the mossy green grounds that lay below the pillars surrounding her. At times it seemed as if even the illustrated groups depicted in the intricate mosaics that hung from the walls of the monastery garden were watching on, equally captivated by her performance.

With previous editions of the festival taking place in the packed, striking Neo-Baroque Theatre Circo, the deserted Tibães monastery inspired a more sombre mood. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Tibães monastery was an artistic nucleus, leading the way for the Baroque and Rococo styles of architecture and art in the North of Portugal. In 2020 the monastery’s cultural importance was reinstated through the Semibreve programme, breathing new life into the archaic structure.

Given the digital landscape the festival pivoted to, a socially-distanced roundtable with researcher David Toop and sound artist Jessica Ekomane, discussing the physical and the virtual worlds only seemed fitting. Together with moderator José Alberto Gomes, the pair shared their perspectives on how the sonic and visual elements of the physical and virtual realm converge and divaricate in their particular practices. Early on in the discussion, Toop shared his current struggles with the pandemic. Ekomane went on to debate her relationship with live streams, detailing the process of deep listening. She speculated that online audiences are now able to tap into deep listening more due to the accessibility of live streamed performances, which remove the need for physical presence. In light of the discourse, it’s clear that Semibreve took a substantial risk in hosting the festival online. Due to the pandemic, the majority of festivals scheduled to take place in 2020 have been cancelled or postponed until 2021 or later, leaving artists and festival staff without work and punters without the experience many of them look forward to all year.

During Sunday’s programme Raquel Castro led a discussion on soundscape studies and acoustic ecology, as Chris Watson, Nuno da Luz and Margarida Mendes investigated the ever-changing relationship between our global environment and its inhabitants. As the panel reinforced: if anything, it seems that our isolation has prompted a new level of introspection and a greater understanding of the importance of the arts and music.

Elsewhere in the colossal monastery, backdropped by a corridor of 17th century Early Modern artworks, self-appointed sound sculptress and Semibreve artist in residence Klara Lewis presented a string-heavy performance that journeyed through a series of sonic loops, building and collapsing as they shed layers of melodies.

With a broad and ambitious theme, it became clear that Semibreve were asking the more significant questions. This wasn’t a festival for those who wished to sit back and passively absorb information; it was a festival that prompted artists and attendees to investigate the unknown, scrutinise perspectives and lean into new ways of thinking.

The group behind the festival built an experience that demanded a certain level of intimacy from both the artists and attendees involved, and despite the separation imposed by my computer screen over those two days I felt more involved and connected to Semibreve’s compositions and conversations than I did during many physical festival experiences. Overall, the team behind Semibreve were successful in addressing the impact of the pandemic on the arts. We’re living in a time where there’s a widespread fear of collapse within the cultural sectors, and the festival provided an example of how vital discourse can still continue to progress.